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Alien (1979, USA)

30/05/2011

Director: Ridley Scott     Starring: Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm

I can only imagine what it must have been like to settle in to a seat in a cinema in 1979 preparing to watch Ridley Scott’s Alien for the first time, unpolluted by the yet to be revealed iconic nature of the film and not really knowing what to expect. It must have been breathtaking to witness the film for that first, unsuspecting time. Personally, I was introduced to the series by the second installment (James Cameron’s Aliens), one of those taped off the telly then watched to destruction videos of my youth that served to prepare me a little for the sights and shocks of the earlier film and also left me with the enduring sense that the second one was the best. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched any of the Alien films and my recent acquisition of the complete Anthology (what happened to “Quadrilogy”? Oh that’s right, it isn’t a real word…) on Blu Ray proved the perfect opportunity to revisit the series in its entirety, this time with the added benefit of a complete remastering job. There are one or two minor spoilers ahead but surely everybody knows what happens in Alien by now?

Blurring the lines between science fiction and horror the crew of inter stellar tug boat the Nostromo take a detour from their course home to stop off on a nearby planet and investigate the source of a mysterious beacon. What they find is a strange new species of alien, one of which hitches a lift on their little ship, sparking a battle for survival as the crew are picked off one by one by the deadly creature.

It’s a tense film. Blending elements of Star Wars and 2001 with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, Scott riffs on the haunted house/stalker horror genre as the crew are hunted around the labyrinthine corridors of their ship by H.R. Giger’s most famous creation. It would have been so easy to write the film off as an exercise in B-movie sci-fi with cardboard sets and ridiculous creature design but, luckily for us, Scott had more vision than that. It’s his serious treatment of the project that secured him enough funding and studio backing to make it something really special.

It owes its success in part to the amazing production design. The Nostromo is as convincing a space ship as I think I’ve seen in cinema. The deliberately archaic looking technology gives the sense that it is not only a commercial vessel (and thus short on luxuries presumably to protect company margins) but that it has been built with practicality in mind, based on tried and tested, reliable tech. It has a heavy, industrial feel to it that gives the impression it could actually work. This is contrasted by Giger’s alien designs. Both the abandoned space craft the crew explore and the creatures they find on it have a distinctly otherworldly look and feel. The sheer scale of the sets within the alien ship are enough to convince you of its alien origins. The iconic monster itself, through all its stages of development, is a thing of sheer, unearthly beauty. From the spindly fingers of the face hugger, to the fleshy, fangy phallus of the chest burster and culminating in the drooling, hissing death machine that is the fully grown alien they are all equally horrific, repugnant and beautiful. Little wonder that it has endured for so long in our cultural memory.

The creation of this convincing environment is only one part of the equation though when it comes to Alien. The casting is also superb. Sigourney Weaver defines the concept of a strong female lead as Ripley, the no nonsense first officer. Ian Holm excels himself as the cold, calculating science offer with something to hide Ash. Stanton and Kotto complement each other brilliantly as the ship’s engineers, the former a cynical veteran of space travel, the latter a quick tempered firebrand, both the unofficial spokesmen for worker’s rights on board ship. John Hurt has a short lived but lively turn as the ill-fated Kane. Tom Skerritt’s Captain Dallas brings a calm if a little maverick order to the crew and Veronica Cartwright gets a rough ride as the slightly hysterical Lambert. In her defence, Scott didn’t tell any of them that when the chest burster ripped its way out of John Hurt it would be accompanied by a spray of 100% genuine animal guts, the majority of which end up splattered all over Cartwright’s face. Her screams of horror and disgust sound real because they pretty much are. The chemistry between the actors is extraordinary, bringing a naturalistic feel to the dialogue, adding to the plausibility that these men and women spend months at a time in each other’s company, living in each other’s pockets. They really are phenomenal.

Combine these elements with the excellent sound design and Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score and you have a recipe for near perfection. Rising above genre expectations it is a film that manages to be both thrilling and convincing. There is a powerful authenticity to it that makes the suspension of your disbelief a simple task and that prevents the film drifting into silly or funny territory. The shiny new Blu Ray transfer just adds to this. The extra clarity and contrast the hi-def format provides really lifts the detail in the film. What were once dark, murky, indistinct backgrounds now bristle with detail. This is especially true of the Giger designed sets and of course the creature itself. Watching this version of it you almost forget that it’s over thirty years old. The fact that it looks so mind blowingly good this far down the line is a direct result of the love and attention that was lavished over the project while it was being made, not just by Scott but by the entire cast and crew.

A classic in the truest sense, Alien is a masterclass in movie making and this new transfer on Blu Ray is reason enough to get yourself hi-deffed.

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